Day 1 - Read Aloud Selections: Mississippi Morning by Ruth Van Der Zee
This stirring work shows the insanity of racism as portrayed through the eyes of a southern white child, James William. The little boy learns that his father may be hosting meetings to promote the harassment of blacks in their hometown. In disbelief, James William questions his dad; the father puts his son's fears to rest, until one day, youngster makes a disheartening discovery.
Day 2 – Poetry Selections. Countee Cullen's "Incident" and Langston Hughes "Merry-Go-Round"
Before presenting "Incident" to young learners, send notices home to inform parents that you will be introducing the children to the works of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. Indicate that Cullen's work
portrays race prejudice in a child-friendly way and makes reference to the "n….." word. Emphasize that the use of the word in this poetic selection will teach children the importance of avoiding the use of such denigrating epithets. (Providing advanced notification resulted in parent buy-in for my class. Should you encounter pessimistic parent responses, use Langston Hughes' "Merry-Go-Round" as an alternative poetry selection [see http://www.continuinged.ku.edu/hughes/ files_city/ woodland_park.html]. Children will grab hold to the cyclic sound and feel of Hughes' work, emphasizing a sense of confusion is evidenced by the Black child in the poem. [My students conjectured that the little boy or girl in the poem was (1) from the visiting an amusement park in the south and was not allowed to get on the Merry-Go-Round
was visiting a place up North where Jim Crow laws were not enforced and was uncertain about where to sit on the carousel.]
Given the okay, invite the children to listen closely to Cullen's work which describes an eight-year old child's journey—perhaps on a bus or train—through old Baltimore, Maryland, one that because of a racial encounter, the child will never forget (see On-Line copy at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171327). Introduce key vocabulary words like
. Then, read the poem, encouraging students to notice the cadence, sound, and feel of the work as you read it in its entirety. Then ask, "Did you hear the sound of prejudice? What does it sound like?" In the event there is no initial response, read the poem once more, but this time having the children clap out the rhythmic pattern:
I found that when the children first listened to the poem, some caught on to the 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 beat in the opening lines, identifying it as a happy sound. They also associated the beat with a sense of movement, as if someone were traveling from one place to another. After rereading the poem, clapping out the rhythm the second time, the children grasped that that jovial feel continued up until the middle of the seventh line: the abrupt pause at the comma after "And so I smiled…,"
in that line caused emotion to swell in the phrase that followed where the "n" word is used; the children recognized that abruptness right away.
At this point, I reiterate: "What is the sound of prejudice?" Achintya immediately responded, "Unexpected! I say this because the way we paused made me feel like the child did not expect to be called the "N" word." Our classroom discussion continued. "I hear sadness and disappointment," Kenya noted, adding that the beginning of the poem sounds happy and lively, but that the part that comes after when the child is called the "N" word sounded sad. Kenya indicated that the way I slowed down the wording towards the end of the poem helped to create this mood. Like a rhythm and blues song, this poem portrays hope knocked down by disappointment. My students heard the unexpected hurt loud and clear.
I subsequently ask, "Who is speaking in this poem?" Hands went flying. "I think it's a black child—maybe a boy or girl visiting someone in Baltimore," Isaiah shared. "Even though it seems to be a black child, this poem can be about anyone who calls someone a bad name," Priscilla and Emma asserted. The sound and content of the poem sparked candid discussion on why we should not use derogatory, marginalizing language to describe anyone. "We're all part of the human family, and because of that, we should respect one another," we all agreed. The sound, rhythm, and movement of Cullen's work served as an invaluable reading comprehension resource and social development tool.
Day 3. Have students revisit the poems to enhance prosody skills and to review the overall theme and significance of each work. Using the first-person voice, have children create a journal insert, putting themselves in the shoes of the character depicted in Cullen's "Incident." Have children read their journal inserts to peers. Include copies of "Merry-Go-Round" in the Computer Center. Have students conjecture why Hughes' wrote the poem; follow up by having them visiting http://www.continuinged.ku.edu/hughes/filescity/woodland_park.html to learn the inspiration behind Hughes' poetic creation. Have students view a snippet of authentic film footage from the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott and impact of the implementation of Jim Crow Laws at http://www.tolerance.org/kit/mighty-times-legacy-rosa-parks.
Additional Extension Activity: Depending upon the maturity of your students, introduce Harlem Renaissance poet Sterling Brown's work, "Old Lem." This poem, which has a rhythm-and-blues feel (you can imagine B. B. King playing his guitar in the background), begins with the narrator describing his "six foot of a man, muscled up perfect, game to the heart"
buddy, Old Lem. Rich in imagery and colloquial language, the words reveal that Old Lem is a strong, hard-working individual who opts to boldly stand up for himself if and when the need arises, despite Jim Crow practices too often encountered by black men in the South. The words "they don't come by ones, they don't come by twos, they come by tens" are hauntingly and strategically repeated throughout key moments within the work. The words, combined with cadence and rhythm, bring to mind vivid pictorial images of a mob lynching in a rural southern town. (I introduced this sophisticated work to my students because they had already experienced a VHS film regarding the l955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and related children's literature the civil rights era.)
Before presenting Brown's work, introduce key vocabulary words like
commissary, whippersnapper, spindling boys, figgers
(southern colloquial terms for "figures" and "somersaults"
and the dialectic terms "
hangtailed hounds, muscled-up-game-to the-heart,
While reading, strategically pick up the cadence and overall rhythm of the work. Subsequently ask students what feelings and images does the wording in "Old Lem" evoke? My students zeroed in on the use of onomatopoeia, strategic use of dialect, and the overall tone of the poem. Many said they heard strength, courage, determination in the lines that described Old Lem. They added they could hear conflict, race prejudice, hatred, and gang violence because of the cadence and rhythm of the poem, particularly as the refrain "they don't come by ones…, they don't come by twos…, they come by tens…" intensified. When we reached the last line, the children knew Old Lem had met with a tragic end. Refer to Brown's poem in its entirety at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237922 to determine if the use of this work is suited for your young learners.